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September 6, 2012

In A Pickle

How the Grinch Stole Strasmas

by Jason Wojciechowski

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"Are you seriously writing about the Stephen Strasburg 'to shut down or not to shut down' decision? Really?"

Yeah, really. But let's get some things straight. Here's what I don't care about for the purposes of this here article: whether the Nationals win the World Series this year, whether the Nationals win the World Series next year, whether the Nationals win any World Series ever. I am not, in other words, acting as your typical blogger/analyst/whatever, even though that is quite often the way I act. Sometimes even on these very pages.

See, every bit of discussion I've read of Mike Rizzo et al.'s decision to keep Strasburg on a strict innings limit has focused on how this affects the baseball team on the field this year and for the life of Strasburg's tenure with the club, whether they could have won more games via a different scheme, and so forth. Some of these analyses have been quite interesting. Enlightening, even. The debate has been lively, though I will note that it is largely uninformed by the studies that the Nationals apparently did in-house that led them to implement the plan in the first place. But put that aside.

The much larger omission from the discussion is the human element. The current generation of Internet sabermetric fans has a distinctly team-oriented bent, in the sense that we (no accusation here can be leveled at any of you any more than it can be leveled at me as well) analyze general manager moves and team moves: Should X make this trade? Should Y sign this free agent? Which stadium proposal should Z take? The basic question is nearly always: Did/will the transaction put the franchise in a better position than it was in before said transaction took place?

Now, we like to phrase these things in terms of wins, because wins were the first thing we cared about as fans. They're the measurement unit for a sports team. But, as we do sometimes acknowledge, it actually boils down to something far more basic. Baseball teams, for the most part, do not try to win baseball games for the sake of it—they try to win because winning is a pretty good way to make money. They are multi-billion dollar enterprises enmeshed in a multi-trillion dollar economy. They aren't service clubs or charitable organizations. They have no mission beyond making money. (There are exceptions, or at least apparent exceptions. The Mike Ilitch situation is a bit too morbid for me to want to discuss expressly, but one might see his approach to running the Tigers as slightly off the usual beaten "let's all make piles of dough" path.) Our typical analysis, then, tries to answer the question of how companies should best make money.

Analyzing which franchises are good at this is well and good (and it's the lifeblood of this very website), but it can cause us to forget that, to steal a hoary anti-stathead cliché, the players—the guys without whom none of this winning and money-making happens—aren't robots. I don't mean that in the sense that players have emotions and don't perform the same way every day. (It's true; it's just irrelevant.) I simply refer to the fact that these players aren't machines toward whom the teams (the owners) have no moral obligations. Robot baseball, whatever downsides you may perceive, does have one virtue: Teams can use the players until they're no good and discard them (ideally recycling the recyclable bits). Of course, owners can do that in real baseball, too (minus the recycling, probably). The question is whether they should.

The players in baseball, by the terms of the Basic Agreement and the Uniform Player Contract, put their bodies in the hands of their employers. They agree that the teams will choose their athletic trainers, doctors, and training requirements. The teams owe no contractual obligation to the players in return, as far as I'm aware, to make responsible choices in these matters as far as the players' lives and livelihoods are concerned. The reason we can treat the Nationals' choice of whether to start Strasburg as purely their choice is because it is purely their choice. Even if the team knows that keeping him active causes the chance of Strasburg's future injury to go up by 15 percent, they're allowed to make the decision that this year is worth it to their bottom line.

You might, all things considered, be completely fine with this. You might think that the boundaries of a company's responsibility to its employees (or to the public) are defined by explicit contract and explicit law and that's the end of that. That's fine! I'm probably not, in this article at least, going to convince you otherwise. It's just that I don't believe in such a cold reality, and I suspect that I'm not alone. I suspect that at least some of you don't feel comfortable supporting businesses that engage in practices that might be legal but do not comport with our notions of fair play or morality. Whether you organize boycotts, post articles about bad companies on Facebook, or just feel guilty every time you turn on your iPod, if you're like me, you're not prepared to let employers do what they want only so long as they pay the fines when they break the law.

If you and I share these core beliefs about the nature of our responsibilities to each other and the applicability of those duties to corporate employers, then you should not be seduced by the notion that analyzing the Nationals' championship odds over the next five years is enough to decide the Strasburg question because just as Strasburg has a contractual obligation to his employer, the Nationals owe Strasburg a moral duty of care. We should be concerned with whether Strasburg could be catastrophically (or even minorly) injured not for the sake of the team, but for the sake of Strasburg. What are the chances, given either a decision to shut him down at 160 innings pitched or to keep starting him right through the playoffs (or some in-between course of action like the one that Ben Lindbergh suggested the other day), that Strasburg's career earnings are reduced by a large fraction? Or even a small fraction? What of the reverberating effects through the rest of his life? Does he get to accomplish the other goals he has for himself if his career ends up like Mark Prior's? What about the emotional toll of his career ending before he turns 30?

I don't mean to imply that we can actually answer these questions. My stance on such matters is known. The analysis requires a lot of knowledge and information that we don't have access to, and it requires a whole range of estimates on the likelihood of various outcomes. Note, though, that this uncertainty is no different from the question we've all been asking, of what the team should do denuded of moral considerations—we don't know what the odds are that the Nationals win the World Series in 2014 if they pitch Strasburg this year any more than we know what the odds are that his life is ruined if he pitches. And yet! Some of us have been willing to proclaim Mike Rizzo's approach stupid. "The worst decision ever," I've even seen. So if we're willing to apply that level of arrogance to questions of how a team ought to solve the basically financial question it has before it, then we should be willing to at least ask how this decision affects Strasburg as a future wage-earner, as a provider for his family. As, in short, a person.

Jason Wojciechowski is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

10 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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frampton
(870)

Nice article. I think we also have to wonder about the pressures on Strasburg himself, both external and internal. External, in that he is certainly aware of the conversations about Rizzo's decision, and internal, in that I have little doubt that Strasburg himself *wants* to be out there through September and October. I don't remember now who said it, but I heard it phrased this week as, how can he not go out there if he's feeling good? First, we don't know how good he feels -- it's widely said that at this time of the year, most every major-league player is hurting some, after 135 games. And second, as Jason points out, there are personal concerns. As much as I'd like to see Strasburg and the Nats be successful this year, that shouldn't be my only consideration, and it cannot be Mike Rizzo's only consideration. Even if Strasburg were to say he's willing to put the short term over the long term; there's so much pressure on him to say that, and so little reward in the court of public and pundit opinion for him acceding to the limitations imposed by the Nationals for his protection.

Sep 06, 2012 07:17 AM
rating: 0
 
FlemSnopes

In this case, doing the right thing toward Strasburg as a person is also a good business decision. Boras and other agents notice when a team acts in the best interest of a player and are likely to be more inclined to nudge their clients in that direction.

Sep 06, 2012 08:19 AM
rating: 1
 
RAJ-A-Holic
(307)

Dumb question, but the Nats are talking about shutting him down for the remainder of the regular season (with a pitch limit for the playoffs), or for the remainder of 2012, or what?

Sep 06, 2012 08:49 AM
rating: 0
 
tomterp

He is expected to make two more starts, then be shut down until 2013 spring training.

Sep 06, 2012 09:12 AM
rating: 0
 
jcjohnson

I think this is an interesting question, one that Tom Boswell touched on a couple of months ago. In a July piece endorsing the shutdown, he mentioned that "Strasburg deserves a square chance at a full career," and warned that the Nats should not act in a way that suggests to players, "[i]f the stakes are high enough, you're just red meat."

I don't know if this is actually part of the Nationals' strategy, but Boswell knows people in the front office and I wouldn't be surprised if he had heard that this was one factor in their decision. Or maybe I just like to believe that there are teams that actually consider the long-term ramifications of their actions on their employees. Either way, it's certainly something that they can sell to other players, including someone like Lucas Giolito, who is now already on the Strasburg path instead of undergoing Tommy John as a pitcher at UCLA.

Sep 06, 2012 08:54 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jason Wojciechowski
BP staff

Interesting -- thanks for bringing that Boswell piece to my attention. I missed it when I was doing my research for this one.

Sep 06, 2012 09:38 AM
 
blue911

Rick Giolito was on Goldstein/Parks podcast (100 I believe). Listen to why Lucas signed with the Nats.

As a side note has anybody ever tried to figure out why 1/1 pitchers have such underwhelming careers?

Sep 06, 2012 10:23 AM
rating: 0
 
mcbain

This continues to be the silliest, most easily-avoidable story in baseball. The Nationals currently have the best record in the game along with an 8-game lead in the East, and they've led their division comfortably for some time now. And yet they carry on as if there were no way to distribute Strasburg's innings this season other than to continue pitching him every 5 games until he maxes out in September. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to shelve him for a couple of starts over each of the past two months, or perhaps to move him out of the rotation and into a bullpen role for a certain period so that he stayed sharp. Instead, Rizzo & Co. have chosen the most unfavorable path by not really having chosen a path at all, and now they're going to be without the cornerstone of their pitching staff for the most important part of the season.

Washington gets an A for mindfulness of their players' health and an F- for creativity. The "human element" isn't going to beat the Reds or the Yankees come October.

Sep 07, 2012 06:20 AM
rating: 0
 
Lindemann
(852)

No, Rizzo and company have chosen a path that they think gave Strasburg the best chance for success this year, in his limited role, and in future years. The "creative" suggestions you describe were examined and rejected as potentially hazardous deviations from a routine that is important to recovery in and of itself. The path they've chosen has worked quite well for Jordan Zimmermann, although no one noticed last year because the Nats weren't sniffing the playoffs.

The human element might not beat the Reds or Yankees come October, but there are 24 other guys on the team who collectively have a decent shot at doing so. I wish there was some magic wand one could wave to heal ligaments, but until then everyone is going to do the best he can with each individual circumstance.

Sep 07, 2012 06:56 AM
rating: 1
 
Pat Folz

If I ruled the world, I would require that your first paragraph be included in any discussion of this decision, whether the writer is arguing for or against. The Nationals are acting on the advice of medical experts, and challenging the Nats' decision is tantamount to challenging that 1)the risk to Strasburg's health is worth the potential reward, and/or 2)that the experts are wrong in their assessment. Either/both of those things could be true, but it takes a hell of a lot more evidence to show than "zomg Rizzos so dumb they could have just moved him to relief/started him only on Saturdays/started him only against the division/taught him to throw a knuckleball/whatever".

Sep 07, 2012 21:38 PM
rating: 0
 
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